Flashback Friday: Ayurveda, The Origins Of Holistic Healing

An article from January, 1985 about the mysterious ancient healing art of Ayurveda, and how it may hold the eternal key to health, happiness and longevity.
Illustration by Melora Walters

For this edition of Flashback Friday, we’re bringing you Steven Rosen’s January, 1985 article, largely based on the work of Dr. Navayauvana of the Ayurvedic Research Center in San Francisco.

Perhaps the oldest system of natural healing—predating even the Chinese system of medicine—is Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word which means the knowledge of life (Veda—Knowledge, Ayu—Life). A translation which more accurately reflects the scope of its subject, however, would be the “knowledge of longevity.” This is so because the ancient sages of India were extremely careful to distinguish between life, a spiritual phenomenon, and longevity, a term which refers to the proper maintenance of the body.

Though freedom from death and disease has been the cherished goal in all ages, before one can search for immortality there must be a practical methodology for bodily maintenance. The achievement of these dual and interdependent goals is the purpose of Ayurveda. Thus, Ayurveda is more than just an ordinary medical science. It elucidates not only the healthiest interaction of body and mind but also prescribes guidelines for realization of the relationship between body and mind to the eternal spirit within each of us. It is totally holistic.

While the science of Ayurveda was put into written form about 50 centuries ago, it has an oral tradition which dates back to antiquity. Meanwhile, over the millennia, several students of Ayurveda wrote voluminous encyclopedias—the Charak Samhita and the Susruta Samhita (named after their respective authors)—which discussed in detail such subjects as pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology, internal medicine, otolaryngology and plastic surgery. Modern scientists are still in awe at the depth and clarity of Ayurvedic information; it is a mystery, and it was conceived way before its time.

An understanding of the Tridosha theory is central to an understanding of Ayurveda. The doshas are dynamic forces within the body and mind whose interactions produce the psychosomatic entity of a given person. The doshas are called Vata, Pitta and Kapha, Sanskrit words that refer, respectively, to activity and motion, heat and energy, and structure and density. Vata, Pitta and Kapha, also, on the most gross platform, refer to air, bile and mucus. Through our daily activities, these forces are constantly moved into a state of disequilibrium—only to be cured by proper diet, climate, season, physical activity and mental discipline. Ayurveda deals with these things as a minute science.

If we study the history of Ayurveda, we have to go back to the Vedic period, as Ayurveda is believed to be Upa Veda, or a branch of Atharva Veda. In the Vedas, which are four in number— Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva—we find ample references to medicines, drugs, principles of treatment and descriptions of the different parts and organs of the human body; thus the germ of Indian medicine no doubt lay in the Vedas, where, it is said, Ayurveda was originally espoused by Lord Dhanvantari. In fact, the Atharva Veda deals with this subject in great detail. We find therein not only the description of Dhanvantari and the cure for diseases, but the causes of the diseases as well.

Interestingly, Ayurveda is comprised of eight branches, viz., (1) Kaya (general medicine), (2) Shalya (major surgery), (3) Shalakya (ear, nose, throat, mouth and eye disease), (4) Bhuta Vidhya (psychiatrics), (5) Kaumara Bhritya (pediatrics), (6) Agada (toxicology), (7) Rasayana (rejuvenation or tonics) and (8) Vajikarana (virilification). Why is this interesting? Because Ayurveda elaborately discussed these things ages before they were supposed to have been known. Indeed, India held many advanced secrets. And many of them are only now being discovered by Westerners.

This much historical background will be sufficient for the common reader to see in Ayurveda the oldest medical system, and even if we ignore and omit the seemingly mythological elements, the existence of such advanced methodology—especially at a time when the world is generally thought of as being in darkness—should be sufficient to bring out the value of the Ayurveda system.

In the words of historian Will Durant, in his famous work, Our Oriental Heritage: “Appended to the Atharva Veda is the Ayurveda (The Science of Longevity). In this system of medicine, illness is attributed to disorder in one of the four humours (air, water, phlegm and blood) and treatment is recommended with herbs and charms. Many of its diagnoses and cures are still used in India, with a success that is sometimes the envy of western physicians [our italics]. The Rig Veda names over a thousand such herbs and advocates water as the best cure for most diseases. Even in Vedic times, physicians and surgeons were being differentiated from magic doctors and were living in houses surrounded by gardens in which they cultivated medicinal plants.”

“The great names in Hindu Medicine are those of Sushruta in the 5th century before and Charaka in the 2nd century after Christ. Sushruta, Professor of Medicine in the University of Benares wrote down in Sanskrit a system of diagnosis and therapy whose elements had descended to him from his tutor Dhanwantari. His book deals at length with surgery, obstetrics, diet, bathing, drugs, infant feeding and hygiene and medical attention. Charaka composed a Samhita (or encyclopedia) of medicine which is still used in India and gave to his followers an almost Hippocratic conception of their calling: ‘not for self, not for the fulfillment of any earthly desire of man, but solely for the good of suffering humanity should you treat your patients and so excel all.’ Only less illustrious than these are Vagbhata (625 A.D.), who prepared a medical compendium in prose and verse, and Bhava Misra (1550 A.D.), whose voluminous work on anatomy, physiology and medicine mentioned, a hundred years before Harvey, the circulation of the blood and prescribed mercury for that novel disease, syphilis, which had recently been brought in by the Portuguese as part of Europeans’ heritage to India.”

“Sushruta described many surgical operations, cataract, hernia, lithotomy, Caesarian section, etc.—and 121 surgical instruments including lancets, sounds, forceps, catheters and rectal and vaginal speculums. Despite Brahminical prohibitions, he described the dissection of dead bodies as indispensable in the training of surgeons. He was the first to graft upon a torn ear portions of skin taken from another part of the body, and from him and his Hindu ancestors rhinoplasty—the surgical reconstruction of the nose—descended into modern medicine. ‘The Ancient Hindus,’ says Garrison, ‘performed almost every major operation except ligation of the arteries. Limbs were amputated, abdominal sections were performed, fractures were set, hemorrhoids and fistulas were removed.’ Sushruta laid down elaborate rules for preparing an operation and his suggestion that the wounded be sterilized by fumigation is one of the earliest known efforts of medicinal liquors to produce insensitivity to pain. In 927 A.D. two surgeons trepanned the skull of a Hindu king and made him insensitive to the operation by administering a drug called Samohini.”

“For the treatment of the 1,120 diseases that he enumerated, Sushruta recommended diagnosis by inspection, palpation and auscultation. Taking of the pulse was described in a treatise dating 1300 A.D. Urine analysis was a better method of diagnosis. Tibetan physicians were reputed able to cure any patient without having seen any more of him than his water. In the time of Yuan Chwang, Hindu medical treatment began with a seven day fast; in this interval the patient often recovered; if the illness continued, drugs were at last employed. Even then drugs were used sparingly; reliance was placed largely on diet, baths, enemas, inhalations, urethral and vaginal injections and blood lettings by leeches or cups. Hindu physicians were especially skilled in concocting antidotes for poisons. Vaccination, unknown to Europe before the 18th century, was known in India as early as 550 A.D., if we may judge from a text attributed to Dhanvantari.”

How Ayurveda Works

The body is believed to be composed of five basic factors: Prithvi (earth), Jala (water), Agni (fire), Akasa (ether) and Vayu (air). The whole universe is also believed to be composed of the same, and hence the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe—all are composed of the same five chief components. This is the original idea—the foundation of Ayurvedic thinking—the harmony that exists between the microcosm and the macrocosm.

And these five basic factors give rise to the three somatic doshas previously mentioned, Vayu (vata), Pitta and Kapha.

Furthermore, Ayurveda teaches that persons should be treated differently, due to different types of physical constitution—a view which closely resembles that of many modern scientists. Accordingly, the three main physical constitutions are known as Vatika, Paitika and Kaphaja. Ayurveda also adds that this physical constitution, being unchangeable, cannot be affected by medicine. Thus, Ayurveda is largely preventive.

The ancient sages have given in detail the particular physical as well as mental characteristics of each of these physical constitutions which can be found in any good book on Ayurveda.

There is definite variation in the diet and habit of each physical constitution. However, there are other factors guiding the main response of the physical constitution of a person, such as race, country, seasons, hereditary factors, environment and so on.

Each physical constitution has got a different reaction to a particular drug or remedy and hence an ideal Ayurvedic physician will never prescribe the same drug or medicine to everyone but will make necessary changes in prescription, according to individuality, whereas modem medicine mainly aims at killing the germs or bacteria or the virus for destroying the infection.

Ayurveda thus defines “true” medicine, saying, “It is correct and pure medicine which cures a particular disease and doesn’t give rise to other side reactions or diseases. It is the impure drug which temporarily cures the disease or suppresses the symptoms and at the same time gives rise to other side reactions.” The above principle, which evolved 3,000 years ago, is clearly understandable today, when many dangerous drugs and “remedies” cure and suppress the particular symptom in a miraculous way while they give rise to so many other side diseases. Sometimes we may even see drugs that are more dangerous than the disease itself. This sort of danger is never present with Ayurvedic treatment because the physician is not trying to treat the disease, but is trying to treat the patient as a whole.


Ayurveda prescribes a lacto-vegetarian diet—that is, a vegetarian diet that includes dairy products. There are, however, other nutritional factors—and Ayurveda deals with them all.

Nutrition refers to the nutritive substances found in foods. We are accustomed to hearing about calories, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and proteins that a particular food contains. But Ayurveda bases its nutritional science on a different set of measurements, the most important of these being the effects produced by the six rasas—sweet, sour, salty, hot, bitter and astringent. These rasas refer to the foods’ ultimate reaction in the body— and not necessarily how the foods taste. And although there are only six rasas, the combinations of these rasas are extensive. Just how and when one combines these various tastes will affect one’s nutrition—and one’s overall health as well.

Recently, modern nutritional therapy has been developed using large doses of vitamins and minerals synthesized from nature. But Ayurveda, for thousands of years, has taught the science of nutritional therapy without the need for expensive laboratories to turn out supplements. Different food combinations and simple herbs were prescribed in the Ayurvedic system—and they worked just fine. Unfortunately, this system has suffered much due to neglect, and there are few people who can apply it properly. But if one is so fortunate as to study Ayurveda under one who is an experienced practitioner—or if one is ever treated by an Ayurvedic doctor—then one will feel very strongly about bidding adieu to modern allopathic medicinal techniques.


The balance of the doshas (and the good health that results from their balance) depends on moderation in eating and sleeping. When eating or sleeping is excessive, deficient or done at improper times or in an improper way, there is every chance that all the doshas will become disturbed.

Excessive eating or sleeping is called athi yoga, and all of us have experienced to some degree its misery-producing effects. Deficient eating or sleep is called hena yoga. When one artificially decreases his food or hours for resting the body, he invites a disturbance of the doshas that will lead to disease. Improper action in regards to bodily demands is called mithya yoga. Eating at the wrong time or in an unsuitable place are examples of this. The Ayurveda recommends sama yoga—meeting bodily needs in a regulated and proper manner.

Proper eating must create a satisfied mind and a balanced feeling in the body. If the mind becomes agitated or dull or if the body becomes heavy and tired after taking food, that eating is improper. For proper eating, six factors should be considered: the place, the time of day, the duration of time since the last meal, the kind of foods to be eaten, the order in which the food should be eaten and the person’s state of mind.

Water before a meal is heavily recommended in Ayurveda. For one thing, obesity will be avoided. Appetite will slacken. Water after a meal, it is said, leads to obesity and disease.

As far as eating goes, Ayurveda suggests taking sweets at the beginning of one’s meal. Aside from the foods we normally taste as sweet, Ayurveda includes legumes and wheat in this category (remember, Ayurveda judges by the ultimate reaction in the stomach—not by the way it tastes). These foods introduce body-building materials (such as amino acids) into the system. Modern science is also finding, after years of research, that such foods prepare the body for a meal and are most helpful at the beginning.

After the sweet-reacting foods are eaten, Ayurveda recommends the sour and salty foods. These foods consist of juicy, cooked vegetables, bean soup and dairy (yogurt perhaps). They are basically liquid in character and increase the fire of digestion.

Then, some rice or solid food can be eaten—this will lead to a satisfying meal and will minimize one’s chances of becoming ill. Ayurveda also recommends that bitter, hot or astringent foods should be taken at the very beginning of a meal. Papaya, mango and yogurt aid in digestion. No follower of Ayurveda will complain of indigestion!

The basic rule, though, is that heavy—and especially sweet—foods should be taken at the beginning of the meal. This is because there is a greater secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach at this time. In the West we’re accustomed to having our desserts last—thus we have a problem of obesity and indigestion (not to mention heart disease!).

And by the way, if a salad is eaten, Ayurveda suggests that it is taken with the sour or salty part of the meal. And the dressing should always have yogurt or lemon juice and salt. This makes the salad easier to digest and removes its tendency to increase the vata dosha (which produces distention of the abdomen, gas and constipation). Salads should not be eaten at the beginning of one’s meal (as many people do) for the same reason.

Fruits, say the Ayurvedic texts, should not be eaten with a heavy meal. They should be eaten alone or with milk for a separate, light snack. Fruits are the equivalent of “candy” in Ayurvedic circles: no one ever said that the Ayurvedic diet would become popular in a world of junk-food junkies!!

And while we’re turning off those whose taste buds are already destroyed, we might as well mention that Ayurveda has a special food that when taken at the very end of a meal, will produce excellent health: fresh buttermilk. Buttermilk helps stimulate the digestive enzymes. It also replenishes the intestines with healthy flora (acidophilus bacteria) and maintains a proper acid-alkaline balance in the stomach. Don’t worry, you can acquire a taste for it.

There are many variations on these themes, but this is a general overview of dietetics in Ayurveda. Personal tastes aside, the diet recommended is the most nutritionally sound, even by today’s standards. What’s more, Ayurveda has literally hundreds of delicious, age-old recipes so an ardent follower doesn’t get bored. Ayurveda offers a great deal to eat, a procedure for eating, and food for thought.

Daily Hygiene and Routine

A sound daily routine actually begins the night before during sleep. Resting the body is necessary to bring the doshas into normal balance. Regulated sleep helps to prevent disease and loss of weight. It allows for the maximum formation of virya, the last-formed element in the body that gives one intelligence, determination and bodily luster. Irregular sleep will disturb the doshas, produce indigestion and make the limbs feel loose and disjoined from the body.

Sleeping during the day increases kapha dosha, and controls vata dosha. Excess sleep can cause mental disturbances, while sleeping at improper times can cause lack of appetite, feverishness and headache. According to Ayurveda, sleeping during the day is allowed only in the summer when the days are long. One may take a nap in the afternoon during this season.

Insomnia, the inability to fall asleep at the proper time, is due to an excess of vata dosha. To help alleviate this condition, the following program is recommended to be done just before going to sleep:

  1. Massage the back of the head, neck and soles of the feet with sesame oil.
  2. Put two or three drops of the oil into each ear.
  3. Take a warm bath.
  4. Drink a cup of hot milk with a half-teaspoon of turmeric.

When rising from bed after sleeping, one should stretch the body. This moves the doshas out from the center (heart region), where they stay during sleep, and it helps to activate the body.

Ayurveda recommends that one should try to defecate and urinate just after rising.

After defecation and washing, one may spray cold water over the face and eyelids and gargle with some cold water in the mouth. When the gums are hypersensitive, gargling with sesame oil is recommended. The teeth should then be cleansed with an astringent tooth powder (none of the American brands I know are astringent), or by chewing and brushing with the twig of a bitter or astringent tree. Nim and Babul trees are most recommended for this purpose, but any twig with the proper taste may be used. Next, the tongue should be scraped with a gold, silver or copper scraper. The scraping removes accumulated mucus from the tongue, activates the body’s lymphatic system and takes away foul odor from the mouth. The scraping should not be done too deeply, nor should the taste buds on the back of the tongue be scraped. The method is to stick the tongue out; the place on the tongue where it leaves the mouth is the place to begin scraping. Two or three strokes with the scraper are sufficient.

For care of the throat, a gargle of warm water with a pinch of sea salt is recommended to help prevent throat disease and laryngitis, and to improve the quality of the voice.

The temperature of the morning bath or shower should begin with warm and end with cold. The cold should be as cold as the body can tolerate without producing shivering. Hot water should not be used; especially hot water should never be poured or sprayed over the head, as it will disturb prana vayu, the life air centered in the head.

Throughout the day, the natural urges of sneezing, crying, passing urine and stool, etc., should not be avoided. By artificially suppressing them, the dosha will be disturbed and the mala, which is a waste product, will remain inside the body. On the other hand, one should not try to force these natural urges either.

The Ayurveda recommends morning exercise as part of a daily health routine. It says that exercise increases one’s energy and desire to work, it helps to regulate the fire of digestion, and it improves metabolism (the conversion of one body element to the next). Before exercise, one should defecate if he has not yet done so that day. On the first day of exercise one should go until he becomes exhausted. This allows him to see what is his present capacity. The next day he should exercise to half of that capacity. From there, he can gradually increase, day by day. Yogic exercises and asanas (postures) are the recommended activities for both the body and the mind, along with walking. Strenuous exercise should not be done by one who suffers from a fever or a disease of the nervous system, or during the hot summer months. Kneading the muscles after exertion or exhaustion helps them to recover and eases pain.

After exercise, a massage may be taken. Massages can be given in two directions: from head to foot (away from the heart) and from foot to head (toward the heart). The former method (away from the heart) should be used for one who is slim or fatigued and for an infant. The latter method should be used for an obese or overweight person. Sesame oil is considered the best massage oil for the hot season, mustard oil for the cold season. Almond oil is especially good for massaging the head.

Massage should not be taken by a person with a fever or with diarrhea. It is also contra-indicated if there is swelling or infection. Massage should never be done over the heart region. After a massage, a regular cold bath or shower should be taken, followed by some food.

Massage improves the complexion, tones muscles, blood vessels and the circulation, exerts a soothing effect on skin and nervous system, improves vision, induces sleep and delays the aging process. An oil massage five or ten minutes before taking a bath is the best method for avoiding skin disease.

When time does not allow for a complete massage, a quick routine of massage includes: the head, neck, spine and soles of the feet. This can be done in less than five minutes as a self-treatment.

In the evening before taking rest, two or three drops of sesame oil should be dropped in each ear. This lubricates the middle ear and also helps to balance the prana vayu in the head. As previously mentioned, it is especially useful for those who have trouble falling asleep at night. It should be done as a daily routine.

By keeping the opening to the senses cleansed in these ways, the doshas are also cleansed. External hygiene thus affects the internal balance and overall health of the body.


India’s own system of medicine—Ayurveda—is again gaining ground because of the serious aftereffects of the prevailing allopathic system. Homeopathy is thus receiving popular acclaim. In many bookstores there are literally hundreds of books on the subject. And those “in the know” regard homeopathic medicine as the next step if we are to survive.

Homeopathic medicine—if traced back far enough—finds its origin in Ayurveda. The most detailed information in the realms of preventive and homeopathic medicine are still found in the ancient Ayurvedic texts.

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